No, parliament should not move out of London while they rebuild the Palace of Westminster

Falling down: the Palace of Westminster. Image: Getty.

Finally, MPs have bitten the bullet and voted to move out of the crumbling Palace of Westminster while the dilapidated building is restored. And almost as soon as the vote was passed, the inevitable calls for parliament to relocate out of London kicked off again.

Serious thinkers have thrown their weight behind the campaign in publications including the Guardian and Economist, arguing that moving MPs and Lords to another city, or even cities, while the Palace is rebuilt would reconnect our despised politicians with the people.

But it’s a nonsensical – and cripplingly expensive – idea.

First and foremost, parliament is not just 650 MPs and 800-odd peers. It’s their thousands of staffers, and tens of thousands of civil servants up and down Whitehall and across Westminster.

For a government to function well, backbenchers, ministers, and civil servants need to work together – not just via email, but in actual physical contact in meetings. Moving the legislative part of our constitution hundreds of miles away from the executive branch would be the equivalent of hurling an entire shed full of spanners into the complicated workings of government, and paying hundreds of millions for the privilege of gumming up the system.

Don’t just take it from me. A 2013 EU study of the only parliament mad enough to actually shift from city to city (its own) found that moving MEPs between Brussels and Strasbourg cost at least €103m a year.

And it’s not just civil servants who would be cut off from the MPs they’re supposed to work with. Businesses, the City, charities, lobbyists, regulators and more who are all based in and around central London would face endless train journeys up and down Britain.

Like it or not, London isn’t just the legislative capital of Britain: it’s also its political, cultural and economic capital. Pretty much anyone and any organisation which wants anything to do with government, policy and politics has set itself up in London – and they’re certainly not going to relocate to Hull or wherever for six years just because MPs feel guilty about spending billions rebuilding the palace they normally work in.

Not only would there be vast, unnecessary costs and inefficiencies in making civil servants, lobbyists, and businesses commute to and from a relocated parliament, there’s also the problem of getting parliament to and from everywhere else.

London is the hub of the UK rail network and has better access to the rest of the UK than anywhere else. For instance, it’s quicker to get to, say, Wrexham, from London by train than it is from Sheffield, even though the latter city – sometimes touted as a possible host for parliament – is 100 miles closer.


And that’s assuming we could even settle on Sheffield, or any other city, as the new home of parliament. The bitter squabble over who would reap the benefits of hosting MPs and peers for six years would itself take years and cost millions. There is no consensus over what the UK’s second city is, with the second largest by population, Birmingham, lagging behind places like Manchester when it comes to local government powers and economic dynamism. And then there are the other capitals, in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast: should they not be front of the queue instead?

Even if we did somehow manage to coalesce around a single candidate without embittering half of Britain or triggering a series of lengthy judicial reviews, finding a suitably large and yet secure building would also be a massive challenge.

When looked at dispassionately, the choice of to stay inside the Westminster security cordon – a stone’s throw from Whitehall, a short walk from the rest of the UK’s leading businesses and cultural hubs, and with the fastest and best access to the rest of the country by train – Is the obvious one.

Yes, we all want to rebalance the UK’s economy and boost the neglected cities that have not seen the success that London has. But, sadly, the ship has sailed when it comes to toppling London’s supremacy, or even challenging it, as Los Angeles or Washington can to New York’s.

We can and should relocate offices and parts of the national infrastructure outside London, like the DVLA in Swansea or BBC Sport in Salford. But parliament, and everything else in its orbit, is not something that can be parcelled out to the rest of the country like some runners-up prize.

It’s fair to say that moving MPs across the road to a temporary building in the former Department for Health, as the current plan suggests, is not very exciting. But sometimes, the right option, and by far the cheapest option, is the boring one.

Editor’s note: This is one side of the argument. Stay tuned, and we might just run the other, too...

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.